Syntauri alphaSyntauri

Syntauri alphaSyntauri Image

Twenty years before soft synths became commonplace in music production, the Syntauri Corporation had the idea of forgoing the typical hardware route and instead using a personal computer to handle its processing and functionality. Billed as the first affordable digital synth (around $1,500, Apple IIe not included), the alphaSyntauri competed directly against the Synclavier and Fairlight systems (both about $40,000 more) and set an impressive standard for 1980. It seemed to be most popular in academic settings, where Apple II systems were already commonplace, although it did make its way into a handful of professional recordings.

16 digital oscillators, 8-note stereo polyphony and 8-part multitimbrality came courtesy of the Mountain Computer Music System dual digital oscillator card that is the heart of the system. The brains come courtesy of an Apple IIe/II+ and lots of custom-written software. An external keyboard was available in 49 or 61 key sizes, the latter of which was velocity-sensitive. The primary performance software, "alphaPlus" provided access to 10 instruments, control over a handful of parameters and could manage a keyboard split of two sounds as well. The "alphaPlus" interface also included an odd visual feedback effect of bars displayed on the monitor corresponding to the keys being played. The result was not unlike the light show in the finale of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". It serves no actual purpose but it looks neat. A 16-track sequencer called "MetaTrak" was also available that was multitimbral and quite flexible. You could play live over an existing MetaTrak sequence. Third party software included many music education titles, as well as some pretty impressive visual wave editing programs.

The sound is fiercely, aggressively digital, a premonition of the first Ensoniq instruments to come a half-dozen years later, thanks to its 8-bit waveforms and utter lack of any analog processing. The upside was that with the right software you could actually draw your own waveforms, making it something akin to a simple sample-playback unit. While the included instruments and presets are wretched, with patience you can get some mean, cutting lead tones and some serviceable organs out of it.

Syntauri alphaSyntauri Image

Exactly why the alphaSyntauri sunk with little trace is unclear. The company, Syntauri Corporation, which folded in 1984, likely had many of the management problems that did in its contemporaries. And the computer industry didn't sit still—by 1988, when the last vestige of alphaSyntauri support vanished, the Apple II was old news.

It is difficult to find an intact system these days. The part most commonly missing is the keyboard interface card, most likely forgotten about when old Apple systems were discarded. The keyboard controllers, while fairly common, are useless without the interface card, and precious few 20+ year old 5 1/4" floppy disks are still readable. Your best bet is to find an intact system someone else already has, otherwise be prepared for one heck of a scavenger hunt.

Whether or not the hunt is worth it depends on your attitude towards the sounds. The success of the Elektron Sid Station suggests that there is a market for 8-bit grunginess, particularly in the electronica realm. Though not terribly rare, the alphaSyntauri is a fascinating piece of both synthesizer history and computer history. It has been used by Herbie Hancock and Laurie Spiegel.

Audio Damage Phosphor Image

Alternatively, you can forego the trouble of locating all that ancient equipment and get the alphaSyntauri for your modern computer/DAW for just $59! Phosphor is a VST instrument from Audio Damage modeled on the alphaSyntauri. “Phosphor's topology closely follows the alphaSyntauri, while adding many modern features such as full velocity control, a much more extensive modulation routing system, tempo synced LFOs, a pair of delays, and two monophonic modes. The noise and oscillators are able to work in the original alphaSyntauri resolutions, and can also be run at modern sample rates. All this results in a much more sophisticated and capable synth than the original, without compromising the ability to recreate the classic sounds of the early days of digital synthesis.”

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9 Visitor comments
John Melcher
February 5, 2013 @ 12:06 am
Syntauri died because management didn't know their market. In 1982, I wrote a non-realtime editor for it, and they told me they didn't see any market for it (so I sold it to Passport Designs). They also didn't embrace MIDI, and tried to position the Syntauri as an educational product.
Paul
January 23, 2013 @ 6:27 am
I have a complete Alpha Syntauri, keyboard, cards, software, all of it! I have not fired it up in many years but given my current interest in thinning the herd, I may examine it to see what is working. I used it quite a bit in the 80's in performing live underscores for community theatre. It was thrilling and ahead of its time in that price range to be able to assemble an electronic music studio for cheap. Anyone interested in discussing feel free to email me at paulpop@comcast.net. Is there an electronic music museum that might have interest in a fully working version?
Stefan
December 19, 2012 @ 3:14 am
I had gotten alphaSyntauri from Harmony House with the inverted keyboard too.

1) to answer the midi question, Yes They added midi out to the Syntaur (no in). I controlled my DX7, CZ101, and the decillionx sampler from the Syntauri.

2) I just looked over manual for the phosphor, and hate to say it but they missed the point. The Syntauri worked with wave shape tables, and I made wave forms from sampled sounds, drawing, AM & FM synthesis, not just from from harmonics. But I see no way to import wave shape tables into phosphor. I may have to make a real Syntauri rack exstention for Reason
signal
August 18, 2012 @ 3:39 am
As the velocity was done in software, the keyboard controller on these were really minimalistic with no firmware or any fancy chips. I wrote a simple syntauri to Roland MPU-401 midi out in assembly way back then and thinking of digging that program out again. Could be fun to get a micro controller to send midi from the syntauri to that VST plugin.
Bellsauce
June 5, 2012 @ 6:32 pm
I just scored one of these on Craigslist for $250 and it works flawlessly. Super fun. On some settings the higher notes feature highly desireable foldover artifacting.
 
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  • The link above will take you to an eBay search for this synth to see active listings. If you don't find it there, try looking in our forum marketplace or post a wanted classified.
  • Specifications
  • Polyphony - 16 voices (8 stereo)
  • Multitimbral - 8-part
  • Sampler - None, although sampled waveforms can be used in synthesis
  • Oscillators - 16 digital
  • LFO - None
  • Filter - None
  • Envelope - ADSR
  • Effects - None
  • Sequencer - MetaTrak software provides 16 tracks and 2 timbres and stores up to 7000 notes
  • Arpeggiator - None
  • Keyboard - 49 keys (non-velocity sensing) or 61 keys (velocity sensing)
  • Memory - Based on host system (64 kb)
  • Control - None
  • Controls - Apple II paddle controllers, Light pen
  • Date Produced - 1980 - 1986

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